Monday, August 29, 2011

Cutting on High School Cross-Country Teams

Recently, Running Times published an article by renowned coach Greg McMillan that got quite a bit of attention. This article seemed to be geared towards high school cross-country (and track) coaches, listing the different types of runners and how to best coach each personality. While it does play up stereotypes, the article still seems pretty spot on for the most part, and most high school runners fall into one of those categories. I think anyone who's run in high school (or college for that matter) can think of teammates who fit into each of the categories fairly well. Additionally, I think McMillan's methodology for handling each type of runner is very good (for the most on for the actual controversy). However, the paragraph that's been getting the attention is about the runners that McMillan labels the "Necessary Evils," the talented runners who didn't put in the necessary work over the summer and come in out of shape. McMillan says to cut them.

Obviously a statement like that is going to get some negative pushback. At most schools, cross-country is a no-cut sport, since there are things like B-teams and open meets. Everyone gets to run, everyone gets to experience being on a team, everyone gets to learn the joy of school sports, everyone gets a chance to better themselves, et cetera. To cut people is to deprive them of that opportunity. Additionally, to cut a talented athlete because he didn't train over the summer may jeopardize the team's chances to win meets. Also, cross-country isn't the most popular sport in America, and many schools can't really afford to be cutting athletes and making a small team even smaller.

On the other end of the argument are the people who support McMillan's statement. The people McMillan advocates cutting are those who are not dedicated to the program and who do not put in the necessary work. Supporters of this article claim that these kind of athletes are a poison who frustrate the coach and drag other athletes down. These people take up the coach's time, financial resources, and are a bad influence on other runners. Additionally, cross-country is a competitive sport. It is not a jogging club; it is a team, and a team should not accept just any slacker or poor athlete, lest it become a jogging club.

So you're probably wondering where I stand in all of this. So the first thing I'm going to point you towards is the example of Joe Newton and York Community High School boys cross-country program. When you have about 90 minutes to kill, The Long Green Line is available on Hulu, and you should watch it. To me, this represents the ideal cross-country team. York welcomes any athlete who wants to run, and only cuts athletes who break some serious school policy, yet that hasn't prevented them from being incredibly successful, winning 27 state titles and 20 national titles since Newton began coaching the team in 1959.

Now obviously that is the ideal. Most schools are not going to be nearly as successful as York. However, I'd still discourage cutting on high school teams. First of all, these athletes are not a poison to everyone else, especially if they're talented. Plus, they can often help the team. A lot. One of my college roommates didn't do much running over the summer...or over fall/winter/spring break...or any doubles...and she sometimes skipped captain's practices and run-on-your-own days. However, her lack of running never rubbed off on the other athletes on the team, and no one else just decided not to run because she wasn't running. Anyone who gets dragged down by that wasn't going to run anyway, with or without the outside influence. But more importantly, by the end of the season, she was in shape and helping the team. In fact, an incredibly gutsy performance helped us to win an XC League Championship one year, and had our coach cut her at the beginning of the season, we wouldn't have won that meet. Another time she won the League 5000m championship and got her ECAC qualifier, which got our team 8 points. It's pretty hard to call an athlete who contributes that much to the team a poison or a resource drain. Did she frustrate our coach? Yes, definitely. But was she enough of a value to the team that she was worth the time and money spent on her? Again, yes, definitely.

Additionally, McMillan states that it's nearly impossible for a team to be both participatory and competitive, and that competitive programs may have to cut slow but dedicated runners, which obviously many people will find upsetting for a number of reasons. I also find it somewhat disheartening to hear an implication that an all-inclusive team will have trouble being competitive, and that a team that wants to be great has little choice but to cut slow runners. For some background, Greg McMillan is the coach of McMillan Elite, which obviously is a very exclusive and competitive post-collegiate program. With a program like McMillan Elite, it's impossible to let any hobby jogger on the team, since they have limited financial resources to work with, as well as limited time to work with their athletes. Making an elite team into a participatory team would severely dilute their team and undermine their goals. Obviously, high school teams suffer from these same problems of limited finances and limited time on the part of the coaching staff. However, I don't believe that it's anywhere near the same level as an elite team, and it should not be treated as such.

Again, York is the perfect example of a team that is both participatory and competitive, though as I stated before, not every program can be York. This does not, however, prevent other programs from balancing those two aspects. My high school team allowed anyone who wanted to join the team, whether they came to "summer practice" or not, and whether they ran a 16:00 5K or a 40:00 5K. And my coach paid attention to every person on the team too. On the surface, this sounds like a purely participatory team, until you consider that the boys' team won the 1999 state championship and were undefeated in the conference from 1995 until the school closed in 2007 (that would be a record of 65-0). The girls' team wasn't nearly as good, though we were still a perennial power and had our fair share of conference championships too. Many of those kids, both fast and slow, stated that running on that team changed their lives. And the back of the pack made huge strides too. One girl went from running a forty minute 5K to a thirty minute 5K (10 minutes!), and raved about the positive changes running brought to her life. Cutting the slow ones would have deprived them of that experience, and I think that would have been a sad thing. I also mentioned my college team before, who allowed my roommate to continue running for the team despite not running over the summer (much to the team's ultimate benefit). My college team, despite being a D1 team, also allowed walk-ons onto the team, and raced them as a B-team at smaller meets, yet I'd hardly call us a "participatory" team. Yes, the Patriot League is a far cry from the PAC-12, but we often did very well at our League meet (I think we won 10 out of 12 women's XC/track League championships while I was there), and at least one of those years, we did fairly well at cross Regionals. We were not a jogging club by any stretch of the imagination. Obviously, our coach spent more time and more money on the fast kids (as he should, especially at that level). The fast kids got more of his attention, and they traveled to bigger, better, more competitive, and more expensive meets. However, the walk-ons never slowed down everyone else. In fact, some of them later helped the team. I was probably one of the slowest, most pathetic walk-ons my freshman year, yet by the time junior year rolled around, I had scored at track meets and I had a few top 7 finishes in cross, and I was far from the only or the best "walk-on did alright for herself" success story. Now obviously this can't be done at a school like Stanford or Colorado, but that's not who we're talking about here, and if it can be done at a small D1 university, I think it can be done at the high school level.

Not everyone can (or should) make their high school football or basketball team. However, they say the roads are always open. Let's give our kids a good welcome and not take away the opportunity for them to learn, grow, and better themselves. There are too many valuable lessons that can be learned from school sports for us to cut kids from a team because they don't live up to an adult's standards (within reason, of course). The best we can do is encourage kids to put in the work and train hard, as well as hope that the lessons of not putting in the work will be taught to the kids who struggle to run with those who have done the appropriate summer running.


  1. Wow cutting kids doesn't make sense to me at all. They are just kids. There are a hundred what ifs when it comes to why they didn't train and you have to give them a chance.
    In our high school, roughly 1/6 of the school was on the track team. It sure didn't seem to hurt us at all! And if you need to CUT kids to prove your "commitment" to the top athletes...well you are doing something wrong. He needs to learn from his "undisciplined" athletes as an experience used to become a better coach.

  2. Thanks for recommending The Long Green Line! That was beautiful.

    Might you have content for a post about the best running movies?

  3. It's a great movie, isn't it?

    Running movies:
    The Long Green Line isn't up there, because I made that list before watching it. I also forgot to include Spirit of the Marathon, which I thought was okay, but nothing special. I'm also looking forward to Miles & Trials: Running Towards 2012, which I believe should be released sometime next year. The list has quite a few of the big hitters though. Enjoy!

  4. As a new coach I can honestly say our team needs cuts. In my first year I have taken a team that has not been ranked or been to CIF since 1999. I have used my former military background and my law enforcement background to instill a discipline that almost all kids have responded to. I have devoted too much time to slackers and this is not coaching. Next year I will have time trials and draw the hard line with the team. Excuses are unacceptable. This is where discipline and commitment start, in high school.

    1. I think you're wrong here. We have a kid with a physical handicap on the team who would be cut from any other sport. He would be cut from cross country if we had a "hard line." He works harder than any kid in the school at any sport. He inspires everyone on every team at every meet. I don't think there's anything wrong with saying to kids you expect them to be at every practice and do every workout unless they have a valid excuse, but to automatically say you'll cut a kid if they can't hit a certain time is wrong. In my state it is a violation of Virginia High School League Rules to cut a kid because they don't do summer workouts. I also believe that coaching IS taking a kid from wherever they are to wherever they can go. I get a lot of joy out of watching a kid who ran a 43 in his first race run a 24 now two years later. He's still not scoring for us, but we celebrate every PR he gets. He doesn't slow down our 16's and 17's and those kids recognize how hard he works.

  5. Since I don't know your situation, it's impossible for me to judge. And it seems like you've gotten results from your methods, which is a good thing. But do you think it could be beneficial at all to teach the slackers discipline rather than cutting them? Also, what's your take on fast and talented but undisciplined kids, as well as on less talented and slower but very dedicated kids?

  6. I figure the more you have out there the better the odds of finding five fast kids.


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